How Karabo Poppy Moletsane is permeating the real African aesthetic worldwide
The Johannesburg-based illustrator had the odds stacked against her but has come out defiant, with energetic work and a resolute work ethic to match.
Where Karabo Poppy Moletsane was raised, creativity wasn’t a career option. It was a hobby – “and then you grow up,” she remembers. But with a deep desire to create that just wouldn’t die down, the South African illustrator – who now counts every world-renowned brand from Google to Nike to Netflix as clients – spent her formative years trying to disprove that theory, and on the way, carved a whole new career path that is uniquely her own.
Born in Vereeniging, a mining town with underfunded high schools that didn’t even offer art as a subject to study, Karabo went to a school further afield to quench her creative thirst. Then, encouraged to pursue art in higher education, the next challenge was telling her parents. “It was really frowned upon,” she says. “They didn’t see it as bringing honour to our family. My parents wanted me to become a doctor, and for a long time, I did too, because I’d never seen someone from my background, who looked like me, turn art into a career. It was always something for people in big cities… actually, white people in big cities. It was always a source of tension.” Deciding to give it a shot, with medicine as the back-up plan, she moved again – this time to Pretoria’s Open Window Institute, to study visual communication.
“I was blown away by how people were creating digital art with all this software I’d never heard of, and communicating just using their art,” Karabo describes of her eye-opening first days at university. “I came from a traditional art background, and seeing people use technology to tell stories really captivated me.” While the creative world opened up to her, however, she noticed there were still a lot of other barriers to knock down: being one of nine people of colour in a student population of around 600, learning a syllabus she saw as woefully skewed. “What we were learning was catered to more of a Western narrative, and we weren’t really seeing an African narrative being taught or explored, or even encouraged,” she says. “In the textbooks, there was traditional and primitive African art, nothing contemporary, or in the context of advertising or digitisation.” While she knew there were black female creatives worldwide doing incredible work, she struggled to find their work prominently online. And when she did, it was in fine art, not contemporary design. One source of inspiration was photography collective (and now creative agency) I See A Different You – “black men who were telling a specifically South African narrative.”
“I didn’t think anyone that came from where I came from would be listened to.”Karabo Poppy
So, this cemented a new mission for Karabo: to join other black creatives in trying to rebalance African representation in the media and contemporary design sphere. Defiant, if a little daunted at first, she began doing it merely for herself and her immediate community. “In the beginning, I didn’t think my voice would be enough, or that anyone that came from where I came from would even be listened to.” With no professional experience, after uni, she began freelancing and searching for advertising agencies and design studios who were also focused on exploring an authentically African viewpoint – to no avail. So she set out alone. “That’s when the fire got lit underneath me, because it wasn’t being done, and I thought it was overdue.”
GalleryThe Fierce Series
GalleryThe Fierce Series
Karabo developed the basis of her illustration style by drawing from her immediate surroundings, specifically the beautifully hand-painted signage of the old school barbershops prevalent throughout Africa. They show side-on portraits of people, demonstrating what hairstyles you can get, and for Karabo this was the type of truly contemporary African symbol she was looking for. Her portraiture is still inspired by those, often in profile, sometimes using unconventional colours – with blue, bright red and orange faces and accentuated features.
The other defining feature of Karabo’s illustration is her energetic line work, bringing vibrancy and movement to every image. This is also inspired by her vicinity, the busy atmosphere she felt when she first moved to a big city and the one she still experiences now in the streets of her Johannesburg home. Astutely commercially minded, when she set out freelancing, she quickly realised that portraits weren’t widely applicable in many brand commissions, so began to diversify her subject matter, using her line work to translate her distinctive aesthetic to different outlets. “It’s almost become a language,” she describes, “and how I use it has changed. I’m able to apply it to pattern work, clothing, walls, shoes, and it’s become looser, so I can use it in many different ways.”
To make each piece, Karabo first takes photos to capture her surroundings, gathering visual references such as the patterns and textiles of people’s clothing. Then she begins stylising what she finds, sampling colours, segments of pattern and vignettes from the photos to use in her illustration. That goes into her sketchbook, and after some development, she finishes off the piece digitally, using a strict set of brushes that she’s stuck to since university, to keep things coherent. Karabo uses this process for everything from passion projects, such as school-side murals and local posters, to commissions from huge clients.
Her big break came around 2014 when she got an email from a big tech company and thought it was spam. It never dawned on her it might actually be a commission. The invitation was to create illustrated stickers that people could add to photos in support of the project’s work tackling HIV and AIDS throughout Africa. Not only was it her first commission from an international brand, but it was also doubly exciting for Karabo that she could contribute to helping her country and continent. “I never thought that I could actually use my creativity and art [to help people]… it felt like I was directly affecting change within the place that I live in and the place that I'm inspired by.”
Then, her schedule got busier and busier. The Wall Street Journal called to effectively make her their go-to illustrator for African stories, giving her a chance to represent her continent again on a global scale. Until then, the newspaper didn’t have an Africa-based illustrator on its books, and was looking to rectify that. “That gave me a glimpse into the fact that people were changing their approach, and I should probably stick with this, because it’s finally going to get to the point where it’s like regular and steady work for me.”
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Nike By You Air Force 1 Low
More recently, a life-changing project landed on her desk. Growing up and lacking black role models in the media, Karabo and her three brothers were besotted with African American 90s culture. “It was the first time we saw black people create something so uniquely theirs, and so visually beautiful, that spoke of all the things we learn at home, in a way that was so proud and unashamed. It was so far away from us, but we could relate to everything we saw in the music, fashion and sitcoms – it still felt like home somehow.” By osmosis emerged a a personal style that took from hip hop and rap, and an inevitable obsession with Air Force 1s. Though her dad said he wouldn’t buy her a pair “until she stopped growing,” the minute she got her first pay cheque she began collecting the shoes. So when she was invited to design her own pair by Nike (which have since been spotted on LeBron James, no less) it was validation of the highest order. “It’s always been a part of my journey since I was little, so it felt like it came full circle, and confirmed what I’m doing. And now my parents believe that this is a real job!”
“It was the first time we saw black people create something so uniquely theirs.”Karabo Poppy
Next, aside from lots of top secret projects she can’t tell us about (keep an eye on her Instagram), the major plan for Karabo’s year ahead is an international solo show. Touring the US, Australia and a few countries within Africa, the exhibition will span the illustrator’s work so far, and explore how she has permeated an authentically African aesthetic within Western culture. From the footwear of the NBA’s biggest star, to illustrations for Netflix’s Strong Black Lead season, specifically its show about the “Exonerated Five,” When They See Us.
Karabo is fast becoming a figurehead in representing black identity, something she always set out to achieve, and she is starting to feel that weight of responsibility, but is navigating it like a true pro. “I feel immense pressure because I really want to represent my identity correctly and authentically, make sure it’s being celebrated and not exploited for monetary gain or trendiness. But I take comfort in knowing that my community really supports me, and is really encouraging me to continue to do what I do. And I trust my own decisions.”
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